How to spot fake news?

As hoaxes and false news clog our social media feeds, we take a look at platforms that are fighting the menace

Updated - April 13, 2017 03:30 pm IST

Published - April 10, 2017 04:42 pm IST

“India stands for Independent Country Declared In August. Very very proud to be Indian... please share this so that more people are aware of this fact...

As you sip your morning coffee, dear reader, I am sure you are very familiar with these messages and forwards that land up every day, clogging our news feeds. Social media has become an integral part of our lives, and is a great resource to stay in touch, share articles and put out your views on everything under the sun.

However, the dark underbelly of these platforms is a maze of false information and half-baked facts, from hoaxes warning about an impending AIDS epidemic because of an infected worker mixing his blood in a soft drink, to ones that show images of political leaders and religious heads appearing on mountain tops, topped by the usual ones that predict that India has won multiple awards constituted by UNESCO.

We try and discover what makes people believe in such forwards. How does one deal with this menace of false news and spread of misinformation?

Multiple resources have sprung up online to combat the false news phenomena. It was a forward about a huge bracelet with a photoshopped version of the Apple logo, claiming to be the latest version of the iPhone, that got P, the man behind SM HoaxSlayer, an online platform to debunk false news and information, on his Facebook and Twitter pages. “Initially, I would give senders solid proof about how the message is incorrect. However, as the volumes increased, and more and more people started getting influenced by such fake messages, I decided to start an online campaign to debunk such information.”

He used a simple Google search to check and discovered that the image was a prototype of some piece of jewellery. He says, “All you need is some common sense to not accept everything written online as the truth. There is no need for any complex tools for debunking most of these hoaxes. It is not an Indian problem alone.”

P runs a small business in Mumbai and spends a couple of hours every day, debunking hoaxes on SM Hoaxslayer. “I am always on the lookout for badly-photoshopped or morphed images, with a hidden agenda. I usually conduct a search online, track the actual information and put it up online.”

He says, “Most of it is rather harmless. However, I know of cases where people have been driven to attempt suicide after their personal data was compromised. Spammers put up a click bait picture of some random religious figure and try to steal the data of those liking those images online or commenting on them. It is tough to track these spammers and phishing agents. On a personal note, I think that one should be very careful about their privacy on social media platforms. Clicking on images of a sickly child is not going to save a child, and may end up with you losing control of your data.”

He adds, “I have witnessed instances where deliberately defamatory content is circulated to incite violence. Recently, the photo of a dead soldier went viral – with a message claiming that the body was that of Tej Bahadur Yadav, who was in the news for his video complaining about the bad quality of food in the BSF. After some research, I discovered that the image was from a Naxal attack in Chhattisgarh. When I receive a query or stumble upon some such stuff, my first tool is common sense. If I think it is doubtful, I do an online search and look for credible sources. I have more than 34,000 likes and followers on Twitter.”

On how life has changed after Internet Hoax Slayer, P chuckles, “Friends and family no longer spam me with random videos and forwards.”

Real news and information getting buried in an avalanche of false information and hoaxes led to Bengaluru-based software engineer Shammas Oliyath and entrepreneur Bal Krishn Birla setting up

Birla says, “Shammas and I have been in touch for a few years via Facebook. Shammas began a blog in 2015 and I joined him in July last year. I look after the technical side of the website. We use search engine optimisation tools that help in checking the authenticity of spam messages that are directed to the website. We get more than 100 messages every day. We also have a WhatsApp number where people can message us. We try to check all the messages and verify them individually.”

Birla and P slot hoax messages into three broad categories – political/ideological, money-based schemes that often infect your system with malware, and the ones that exist merely for nuisance value. Birla says, “Some of the forwards, such as the frequent UNESCO awards that the national anthem wins, can be easily debunked. However, there are some that are tougher to crack, such as the rumour that the Shivaji statue in Mumbai is supposed to have many scientific benefits. We check by googling it, and looking for the original source of the information. We do not use any high-end gadgets. If we find that a hoax has already been busted, we give due credit.”

Software engineer Prashant KM gives some basic tips to stave off false information. “An image file can be verified on Google image search and will give you a quick match. I use plug-ins like RevEye on Chrome to check the veracity of any forward I receive. Reverse imaging is also helpful, especially in discovering the truth behind many missing cases.”

He adds, “I spend hours convincing friends and family that everything they find online is not necessarily true. I wish people would treat these messages with some scepticism.”

Piyush Chawla, a Bengaluru-based psychologist, weighs in, “We tend to seek out information that confirms what we already know or believe. Often, we reject things that contradict our version of the truth, and tend to trust people who subscribe to our world view. On social media, this means that we tend to not see anything that we do not agree with, and accept everything that goes with our beliefs at face value. This is the major factor that results in the spread of silly hoaxes and dangerous misinformation.”

So the next time your uncle sends you a text about the national anthem winning another UNESCO award, you know where to look.

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